Horse owners are often focused primarily on the foal at weaning time, and there is much to be concerned about. Weaning is a stressful time in the young horse's life, and imbalances in nutrition at that stage can cause problems far down the road. But horse owners also need to pay attention to the broodmare at this critical time. In this article, Kathleen Crandell, PhD, a nutritionist for Kentucky Equine Research, discusses nutritional support for the mare at weaning time and Bryan Waldridge, DVM, DACVIM, resident veterinarian at KER, discusses other health concerns.
Maintaining the nutritional well-being of mares and foals throughout weaning is part and parcel of a successful separation. Weaning will likely be the most stressful event of the foal’s life, and worse, its primary source of comfort will have vanished. While concern for the foal is justified, the mare deserves consideration as well, and for her the chief management task involves shifting nutritional requirements.
Most mares are fed a concentrate feed while lactating because they require the energy as well as the vitamin and mineral fortification to produce sufficient high-quality milk and to maintain adequate body condition.
Owners should consider tapering off concentrates fed to mares as weaning day approaches, although concentrate should still be available to the foal. Keep a mare from snatching the foal’s feed by using a creep feeder or by tying the mare while the foal eats.
Crandell recommends that all mares, regardless of body condition, be taken off concentrates during weaning. Because many broodmares are also pregnant at this time, they should be kept on an appropriate vitamin and mineral supplement, and they should still have access to as much good-quality forage as they choose.
“Generally, a one- to two-week break from concentrates will suffice. As soon as milk production stops and the udder returns to a normal, non-lactating size, the mare can be started back on concentrates,” said Crandell. “As long as the calories and the protein content of the diet decrease and there is no suckling stimulus, milk production should stop fairly quickly.”
Once the mare has dried up, the focus should turn to weight management of the mare. The demands of lactation affect mares differently. Some mares maintain weight without a problem, while body condition seems to melt off others throughout lactation. Those that lose significant amounts of weight during lactation require the most consideration after weaning.
“If the mare has lost a lot of body condition while nursing a foal, then a high-calorie diet is recommended to help get the mare back to an acceptable weight,” said Crandell. The best way to add calories to a diet is through provision of high-quality forage. This may include full-time access to good-quality pasture or generous helpings of a legume hay such as alfalfa or perhaps a mixed hay.
Concentrates can be introduced back into the diet gradually. Without the physiological drain of milk production, the mare should use the dietary energy to increase body condition. Feeds that are formulated with multiple energy sources such as starch, fat and fiber might be useful.
“For the thin mare, it is really important to get some extra body condition before the third trimester of pregnancy to prepare for the high caloric needs of late gestation and lactation. Even if the mare is just a little ribby, it would be important to get her to an acceptable body condition score (a 5 or 6). She may gain weight quickly once the foal is off her,” said Crandell.
Some mares handle lactation with extraordinary ease from a physiological perspective. If a mare is still at optimal weight after nursing a foal for months, then the chief concern would be to offer adequate vitamin and mineral intake to balance the inadequacies of forage. This can be done with a pelleted vitamin and mineral supplement or an equine mineral salt mix or block.
Other Health Concerns
Mares typically have few health concerns associated with weaning. Probably the most pervasive is the anxiety associated with separation that usually manifests as whinnying, fence- or stall-walking, and general fretting.
Young mares, especially first-time mothers, seem to become most worked up during weaning, while older, wiser mares that have had numerous foals are typically more stoic. Others seem almost relieved to be finished with their maternal duties.
The change in feeding coupled with the worry of separation might cause some sensitive mares to experience mild colic at weaning. Suspected cases of colic should be considered medical emergencies, and a veterinarian should be consulted at once.
Although uncommon in mares, another possible health concern is mastitis or inflammation of the mammary system.
“Mastitis seems to be more common at weaning, probably because milk sits in the udder and has a higher chance of becoming infected,” according to Bryan Waldridge, DVM, DACVIM, resident veterinarian at Kentucky Equine Research.
“Mastitis is usually caused by a bacterial infection,” said Waldridge. “Some people think that insects carry bacteria and play a role in the disease, and that’s probably true.”
The most obvious clinical signs of mastitis are pain and swelling. Extreme caution is warranted when examining mares suspected of having mastitis, as many are extremely sensitive and may kick. If you suspect mastitis, consult a veterinarian immediately. Most cases can be cleared up with intramammary and systemic antibiotics.
Careful observation of the mare following weaning will help ensure her well-being.